The first season was the childhood magic, the second a dark highway, and the third a farewell to innocence. You can debate whether season 1 or 2 is the best (I say 2), but there’s no denying those two are top-notch — the storytelling, acting performances, plotting and drama are compelling from start to finish. You can’t say that about season 3.
There’s a desperate and lonely feel to the first two seasons that made Stranger Things what it was, and more than just a sci-fic show about other-dimensional aliens. It was about authentic characters, whose traumas made us feel invested in them. There was abuse (Eleven’s at the hands of Dr. Brenner, Max’s at the hands of Billy); there was grief (Nancy’s for her best friend Barb, Joyce’s for her boyfriend Bob, Hopper’s for his daughter Sara, the kids thinking Will is dead, Mike thinking El is dead); abandonment (El’s homelessness, and searching for her mother); bullying (from Troy and then Billy); homicidal urges (which El struggled with); torture (of Eleven in the lab, her mother years before, and Will by the Mind Flayer). When you strip those elements away, as season three did, and fill in cheap comedy, it’s hard to keep caring about the characters. Let’s go through each season, from 2–>1–>3.
Rank #1 — Season 2: The Year of Estrangement
What I love about season 2 is that all the main characters are alienated in some way, whether from others or themselves, and suffering traumas they can hardly speak of. Eleven is isolated, torn between a new father figure and a mother she wants to find; Mike is a shell, believing his girlfriend dead but unable to let go; Will is possessed; Nancy is drowning in guilt; Dustin can find acceptance only in a dangerous pet. It took nerve for the Duffers to treat their characters this honestly, and especially to emasculate its lead character Mike while keeping Eleven out of reach until the end. This is what sequels should be like, and for me it’s is the height of the series, not only in terms of the thrills and scares, but the emotional ride. It all comes together in a hugely dramatic payoff. Stranger Things 2 is the best season because it’s the most immersive, and doesn’t flinch from the cost of what went on before.
Here are the second season’s mighty strengths:
- Emo Mike. Mike has undergone a dramatic change from season 1. He’s no longer a spirited leader, but down and sour, especially to his friends, except Will — the only one Mike considers worthy of his affection. Mike’s logic seems to be that since he’s suffering, then so should everyone else, which is why Lucas and Dustin’s gaiety is so intolerable. Mike even shits on Max, copying Lucas’s hostility towards Eleven in season 1, oblivious to his hypocrisy. Fans have complained about this bad-attitude “Emo Mike”, and they’re probably the same ones who complained about the way Lucas treated El in season 1. All they’re saying is that they don’t like good storytelling. This was the necessary direction for Mike Wheeler’s character, and it’s what makes his story-arc so compelling. The loss of El has shattered him, and we feel that loss through him as we should.
- Darker Roads / Halloween Theme. Where in season 1 the influence of Stephen Spielberg balances that of Stephen King, season 2 favors the latter with an unrelenting dark tone. For me that’s a strength. The darkness of the season aligns with the theme of estrangement, and it’s what makes the end game so rewarding. The Snow Ball pays it off. The Exorcist homages are another huge score, making season 2 by far the scariest; that’s a plus in every way. The elements of Halloween — both inside and outside the narrative (Stranger Things 2 was released right before Halloween of 2017) — also supplement the horror theme brilliantly. It’s the boys’ favorite time of year, as it was certainly mine when I was their age; for that matter, it still is my favorite holiday.
- Eleven and Will. Season 2 contains, no exaggeration, some of the best child acting seen on TV: Will’s possession scenes, Eleven’s psychic tantrum in Hopper’s cabin, Mike’s rage against Hopper for keeping El hidden, and more. Of course, these kids act superbly in all three seasons, but in Stranger Things 2 they hit a record high. Will’s possession scenes in particular run the gamut, as he throws convulsive fits one moment, trembles in terror the next, and then stares down people with the menace of a demon. The shouting match between El and Hopper — the psychic tantrum culminating in the exploding windows — is Ross Duffer’s favorite scene of the season, and you can certainly make a case for it.
- New Teams. The Duffers mixed things up to progress character arcs, and so it’s not always the same groups doing the same things. So we get El and Hopper together, before El leaves to find her lab sister. Mike and Will are paired up (since Mike can’t stomach anyone else), before Will gets completely possessed. Lucas and Max bond, feeling the seed of romance. By far the most cherished pairing is Steve and Dustin, who find common ground in their girl troubles; Steve has just lost Nancy, and Dustin has no hope of winning Max. So Steve proceeds to counsel Dustin in all the right ways of hitting on girls, which calls forth amusing remarks about sexual electricity. Nancy and Jonathan are the only repeat-team from season 1, which works fine, as they take their sleuthing skills to a higher level. All of these pairings were good calls.
- The Lost Sister. Why everyone hates this episode is beyond me. It’s a gem. It takes Eleven on a much needed dark journey so that she can come to terms with her homicidal urges, and see how clearly she loves the people of Hawkins once she is away from them. She experiences the lure of vigilantism, but ultimately rejects that when she realizes that one of her victims is more pathetic than evil. The episode ends in a superb scene, starting with her vision of Mike and Hopper (who are just realizing that Will has unleashed an army of demo-dogs on the lab), to Kali’s use of an invisibility cloak to escape the cops, to El insisting that she return home — not because her Hawkins friends can save her, but because she can save them.
- The Finale. As excellent as the season-1 finale is, it has nothing on the season-2 climax. Unlike the demogorgon, the Mind Flayer is sentient and all-powerful, and clearly too much for El to destroy. She must shut the Gate on the thing, sever its ties to our world, and isolate it in the Upside Down. In so doing, she’ll kill everything connected to it, including the army of demo-dogs, but also Will. So Will needs an exorcism — by spatial heaters instead of holy water — and it’s a great homage to the scariest film ever made. Meanwhile, Steve and the kids attack on the underground hub to draw the demo-dogs away from El and Hopper. When those two missions succeed, El can begin, and the momentum has piled like a juggernaut. Millie Bobby Brown does an amazing job conveying stress and exhaustion and fury all at once, and the flashback to Papa in episode 7 — “You have a wound, Eleven, a terrible wound, and eventually it will kill you” — is what allows her to summon the requisite rage to close the Gate.
- The Snow Ball Epilogue. The fairy tale ending of season 2 pays off everything we’ve been through. Each of the boys ends up dancing with the right girl: Lucas gets Max after a clumsy proposal, Will gets a bashful admirer (his “Zombie Boy” status working for him, for a change), and Dustin is rejected by every girl he asks until the elder Nancy comes to his rescue. Then El finally arrives (I wasn’t sure this would happen on first viewing), and she and Mike dance to the creepy stalker song, “Every Breath You Take” — a perfect fit, not only because Mike and El’s relationship has always been rather weird, but because El has been stalking Mike for a whole year. The Snow Ball epilogue is so affecting, so right: the kids earned this closure, and by God so did we.
Stranger Things 2, in sum, is a dramatic apex that nailed all the right chords for me. (5 stars)
Rank #2 — Season 1: The Quest for Will
The starter season that brought back the magic of my youth is pretty much beyond criticism. As a twelve-year old I enjoyed the same kind of autonomy as Mike, Lucas, and Dustin. Today’s era of helicopter parenting and social media has all but wiped out the best in children, and Stranger Things 1 could be the wake-up call if only enough parents would listen. The season is so meticulously crafted that not a single scene feels wasted. Even the quietest character moments advance the story. In this sense it’s the most polished season.
Here in particular is what makes the first season so great:
- Will’s abduction. The quest to find Will gives the season a constant feel of emergency, that he needs rescuing before the Big Bad makes him its next supper. It’s easy to ring tension out of rescue missions, and the tension stays constant throughout all the episodes. And if the demogorgon stands in the shadow of what follows — it doesn’t possess people or absorb flayed bodies — as a predator it does all it needs to do. For the kids’ first dip into the Upside Down, that’s a worst nightmare come to life. There are heavy shades of Alien, especially when Will is captured by the predator and joined to a facehugger. Not to mention the slug he vomits at the end. Giving Will minimal screen time this season also worked wonders in ratcheting up the suspense. The only glimpses we get are through Christmas lights repurposed as a Ouija Board, his terrified shouting through Joyce’s living room wall, and Eleven’s vision of him hunkering down in the shadow version of Castle Byers.
- Mike and El. They are to Stranger Things as Frodo and Sam are to Lord of the Rings. Without them the story is hardly worth telling. Since watching season 1, I’ve had many dreams of Mike and El, sometimes as an invisible spectator, sometimes with me taking the role of Mike, other times as my past 12-year old self interacting with them and Lucas and Dustin. Most of the time in Mike’s basement, where El still lives secretly, and the idea of that doesn’t seem surreal. From the start Mike is clearly in love with El though he’s hardly aware of it and could never admit it. He protects her, fights with her, cries with her, as only soulmates do. The pivotal moment is at the end of episode 3, when Will’s fake body is dragged from the river, and they all think it’s real. Mike’s furious reaction as he yells at El and runs home enraged, to the scoring of Peter Gabriel’s cover for David Bowie’s “Heroes”, is a rare piece of cinematic art. From that point on, Mike and El’s relationship is the keystone of the series.
- Jim Hopper. Before he was ruined in season 3, Jim Hopper was boss. Introduced as a chain-smoking, pill-popping alcoholic, and obviously scarred by the death of his daughter and subsequent divorce, he recovers his purpose as he leads the hunt for Will Byers. He becomes invested in Joyce Byers, whom everyone thinks is crazy, including himself, until he uncovers the government conspiracy proving Will’s death was faked. By the time he and Joyce venture into the Upside Down on a suicide mission, Hopper has become as lovable as the kids of the series, and he obtains the perfect redemption in the rescue of Will: his desperate resuscitation of Will, as he replays his daughter’s flatlining in the hospital — to the theme of Moby’s “When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die” — is absolutely sublime.
- Sacrifice. El’s sacrifice is simple, the resolution predictable, but only in way that tragedy needs to be. It devastates poor Mike who had just promised to take her in as a member of his family. It’s a rare case when a fake death works, because everyone (except Hopper) will keep thinking she’s still dead for a full year, until the end of season 2. All the traits are in place that define Eleven as a vulnerable hero: the nosebleeds; the hysterical exhaustion; the cost of using her powers; and the overwhelming guilt she suffers, knowing the Upside Down’s intrusion is her fault. “Goodbye, Mike,” sounds almost like a suicide she thinks she deserves.
- Friendship. The friendship between the four boys works on many levels to those of us who grew up in the ’80s. The opening D&D scene is precious — possibly my favorite of the series. The dynamics between the boys is a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood; their chemistry is amazing; their bickering and in-group fighting completely compelling. They go to any length to save their friend, and while it’s the adults (Hopper and Joyce) who actually pull off Will’s rescue, there’s a clear sense throughout Stranger Things that adults are often the problem, and can only do much without help from kids who believe in limitless possibilities.
This season is a platinum success, which I rank second not because it’s anything less than excellent, only because season 2 is even better. (5 stars)
Rank #3 — Season 3: The Summer of Love
The third season has problems that I foreshadowed at the top. I’ll take the good and bad in turn.
The Good. Here’s where season 3 shined:
- Eleven. She’s always the best thing about Stranger Things, but season 3 takes her to the next level without turning her into a cheap superhero. She’s still vulnerable. Her showdown with Billy in the sauna is a jaw-dropper, and while she ends up giving him an ass-pounding, it doesn’t come easy, and he almost chokes her to death. She fights the Mind Flayer twice and is almost torn apart by it. Then she is bitten and infected by it, and later she has to stop Jonathan from cutting her leg open so that she can rip out the flayed critter herself — one of the most searing scenes of the entire series. It was a bold decision for the writers to strip El of her powers at the moment she needs them most, and the way she “wins” against Billy at Starcourt is transcendent. Everything about Millie Bobby Brown’s performance still amazes. And damn, that girl can cry.
- Summer of Love/Growing Pains. The Duffers are good at exploiting seasonal themes. Halloween fit the horror thrust of the previous year, and the Fourth of July aligns with the summer-of-love theme. It’s the boys’ last summer before starting high school, and in some ways the end of their childhood. They like girls now, except for Will. He may be gay or asexual, but he really just wants to keep playing D&D without romantic intrusions. Hopper, for his part, also doesn’t like all of this romance, though he sees it from a father’s perspective, wanting El to stay his little girl forever. Season 3 is about the desperate need to slow down time so that certain things aren’t lost too soon. The theme drives emotional scenes that are well earned, especially in episode 3, when Will flees the ridicule of Mike and Lucas; he takes refuge in Castle Byers, which he then smashes down with a baseball bat in tearful rage.
- The Big, Big Bad. The new incarnation of the Mind Flayer is a fusion of mutilated human beings, and by far the most impressive creature in the series so far. This is one point on which season 3 supersedes the previous. It’s an homage to David Cronenberg’s body horror films and wonderfully deranged: besides possession of a host (first Will, and now Billy), the Mind Flayer manifests in this world through an assemblage of corpses. That’s a lot of dead people required, and the Hawkins body count is higher than ever before, which makes it harder and harder to keep this town’s horrifying secrets under wraps.
- New Teams again. The Steve-Dustin pairing from season 2 is wisely repeated. They hook up right away, after Dustin is rudely ditched in the first episode by Mike, Lucas, and Will after a short-lived welcome home from summer camp. Then they are joined by newcomers Robin and Erica to comprise the Mall Team. The other teams are mostly good too: Mike, Lucas, and Will clash against El and Max who have declared a war on boyfriends, until they all join as one team against the Mind Flayer threat. Nancy and Jonathan are the usual pair of detectives, and they do well together. The one team that fails is Hopper and Joyce… but more on that below.
- The Finale. The Duffers always turn out finales with mighty payoffs, but this one is best of all, and capped off by the deaths of two major characters. The first being Jim Hopper (even if he’s not really dead), and the second Billy, whose death is the bigger tear-jerker for the way El “wins” against him. Her liberation of Billy is a crowning moment of triumph because she’s powerless, thanks to the Mind Flayer’s infection. She reaches him by exploiting what she did with her powers in episode 6, when she went inside his mind and saw him as a child who loved his mother. Meanwhile the other kids are throwing Satan’s-Baby fireworks at the creature, doing whatever they can to bring it down. The result is a staggering display of explosive apocalypse for the glorious Fourth.
- The Farewell Epilogue. The epilogue inverts season-2. Where the Snow Ball Dance brought everyone back together after a long road of isolation, the Farewell to Hawkins sees a parting of the ways after a summer of love. With El now adopted by Joyce and thus leaving with Will and Jonathan, it genuinely hurts to think of her and Mike on another stretch of separation from each other. It also hurts to think of her without her powers, even if she’ll probably get them back in season 4. But we can’t blame Joyce for leaving. She has suffered two seasons of trauma over Will, almost losing him both times; she saw her boyfriend Bob Newby torn apart right in front of her; and she had to kill Hopper to save Hawkins. There’s no way she could not move out of Hawkins after this. It’s a very moving epilogue, and the Duffers have a serious challenge ahead of them, if they want to outdo themselves in the season 4 finale.
The Bad. These are non-trivial failings, and the first two in particular went a long way to bringing down the overall rating of the season.
- Misfire #1: Cheap Comedy. There’s always been humor in Stranger Things, because the characters can be genuinely funny. In season 3 the show goes beyond this by playing situations themselves for laughs, and turning the series into a sitcom — and it’s not funny. When Hopper needs to commandeer a civilian’s car for police business, for example, he and Joyce treat the whole thing like a supremely laughable joke. Characters like Mayor Kline and the editors at The Hawkins Post are completely cartoonish. Mike and El’s breakup was a great idea, but again it’s played for laughs. Erica’s brat humor works to an extent, but should have been reined in at times. The comedy problem produces a horrible clash in tone.
- Misfire #2: Jim Hopper ruined. In particular, the cartooning of Jim Hopper was so off the scales that it ruined his character. He’s always had a rough side, but balanced with hidden tenderness. In Stranger Things 3 that balance is gone. Hopper’s treatment of Mike is downright vituperative. I don’t object to him being jealous and over-protective of his daughter, and indeed I approve the idea of him pulling asshole maneuvers to stop Mike from dating El. (I had him do something similar in my own fanfiction novels.) But it’s not taken seriously. Ditto for his treatment of Joyce. Hopper denigrates her non-stop, yells and screams like a rage-a-holic, and it never lets up. This is no regression of character; it’s a cartoonish perversion of his character.
- Misfire #3: Lazy Plotting. There’s some lazy writing this season, as important events just “happen” to the show’s main characters. The Mind Flayer needs a new host, and just happens to possess Billy, who is driving by the dangerous location. Nancy just happens to answer the phone at the newspaper office, and pick up a hot tip that leads her and Jonathan to the mysterious rats. Dustin intercepts a Russian transmission and takes the information to his bro-buddy Steve, who just happens to work at the very place taken over by the Russians. Eleven learns that Billy is doing bad things, because she just happens to spy on him in the Void as part of a spin-the-bottle game with Max. None of this kind of lazy plotting can be found in seasons 1 and 2.
- Misfire #4: Karen Wheeler. The go-nowhere subplot with Karen Wheeler and Billy is outrageous. Having teased an affair between these two at the end of season 2, and picking up that thread right way at the start of this season, the Duffers drop it altogether with no payoff to the subplot at all. They should have had the courage of their initial convictions, and threw Karen and Billy in the sack. The repercussions would have been dramatic and severe, and gone a long way to reattaining the edginess of season 2.
- Misfire #5: Where’s the Upside Down? The main villain of Stranger Things is the shadow realm itself. In season 1 we saw Barb killed in the Upside Down, Will hiding in the shadow version of Castle Byers, Nancy entering the shadow forest, and Hopper and Joyce passing through the Gate to rescue Will. In season 2 the Upside Down burrowed into Hawkins, through the underground tunnels, where Hopper got snared; we also saw the Upside Down through Will’s eyes, thanks to his possession. In season 3 we never see the shadow side. The night atmosphere with floating particles never puts in an appearance.
- Misfire #6: Low Jeopardy. Also significant is the lack of relentless threat to any of the kids. In seasons 1 and 2, Will’s abduction and possession kept the tension burning from the start. In season 3 the new victim is Billy Hargrove, and he’s a bad guy, so we don’t really care if his possession ends up destroying him. We do learn that Billy is just being used to get to Eleven, but the Mind Flayer doesn’t succeed in getting inside her until the finale. Prior to this, for seven whole episodes the kids have dramatic face-offs with Billy and/or the Mind Flayer, which are very good, but in-between they’re just sort of hanging around.
Worth reading is The Guardian‘s Stranger Things 3: A Flawless Finale – But What a Slog to Get There. The season-3 finale is admittedly grand, but that’s mostly what it relies on to redeems it. Also check out The National Review‘s In Its Third Season, Stranger Things Strays from What Made It Great, which pulls no punches at all.
Season 3 gets a pass from me, mostly for the staggering finale, and for the other positive elements I mentioned that appear sporadically. (3 stars)